Is “Sex Worker” a Legitimate Phrase?

Public Discourse 3 February 2014
There’s an interesting debate about the phrase “sex work.” It’s not a phrase that’s assimilated in human-resource terminology. It’s not quite something a career counselor would recommend as a legitimate job choice. Perhaps it’s because the work it’s suggesting is illegal in many parts of the world, perhaps because it’s often intimately tied to abuses and shady dealings. Still, proponents of the phrase, some of whom have started their own sex-worker unions, are trying to use “sex worker” until it sticks.

So where did this phrase sex work come from? Some say it was first used by Carol Leigh, also known as the Scarlet Harlot, at a conference in 1989. According to Melissa Farley, head of the research powerhouse Prostitution Research and Education, “pimps and their friends began to use it a long time ago. . . . The term came out of California decades ago by pro-prostitution groups like COYOTE.”

COYOTE stands for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, a group now championed by sex workers but which was actually formed in the seventies to promote the cause not of women, but of johns. Farley, who has authored numerous national and international studies on prostitution, told me in a phone interview, “in that term [“sex worker”], a violation against women is turned into employment . . . people think it lends dignity to women who do it.”

Farley insists the phrase “sex worker” fails to bring dignity to women in prostitution. “What lends them real dignity,” she told me, is “to call them a woman or a sister. You don’t have to identify a person by what is done to her.” For Farley, the phrase is mainly a marketing tool. “So much of the thinking around prostitution is marketing driven,” she tells me. “Above all, prostitution and trafficking is about marketing and ‘having a good time’ and making money—this image is all a lie, but it’s good for business.”

The truth is, many of the women in so-called sex work do not choose that employment voluntarily. Drawing from decades of research, Farley says that most of these women “have been caged in by racism and sexism and poverty and end up involved in something that is really hard to get out of once you’re in.” Farley’s not concerned with making sex work more accessible and accepted; Farley is pushing instead for women’s “right not to prostitute.” According to her research, 89 percent of prostituted people interviewed in nine different countries indicate “they want to get out now.”

One formerly sex-trafficked woman, Rachel Moran, described her options at her blog The Prostitution Experience:

When I think of my choices they were simply these: have men on and inside you, or continue to suffer homelessness and hunger. Take your pick. Make your “choice.” People will never understand the concept of choice as it operates in prostitution until they understand the concept of constraint so active within it. As long as the constrained nature of this choice is ignored it will be impossible to understand the pitiful role of ‘choice’ for women within prostitution.